The anxiety wakes me up before the alarm does. “Be there at 6:30 a.m. sharp,” Tom Hogye had told me. It’ll take nine minutes to get dressed, seven to make toast and coffee, and 22 minutes to get there. That leaves me with an extra 22 minutes to spare, just in case. As the alarm goes off, I leap out of bed and trip over the boots I’d set out the night before. I’m not off to a great start.
“It’ll be cold,” Hogye had said. I put on my long sleeve thermal, down jacket, borrowed ski pants, extra thick socks, hiking boots, and fleece hat. I burn my toast and forget my coffee, but I’m on the road at 5:52 a.m.
I peer down at the temperature—34 degrees. “I won’t even see any fish,” I think, turning onto Highway 9. “They’ll all be frozen.”
Hogye is a Santa Cruz local and longtime angler who is graciously allowing me to tag along on his Sunday fishing outing on the San Lorenzo River. I’m skeptical that there are fish in the river, and my friends and coworkers don’t believe it, either. Sure, there used to be fish in the San Lorenzo, but given that the water level outside of the Good Times office never looks higher than a few inches, it seems impossible that there are fish bigger than my thumb in there.
Hogye has agreed to let me join him on this Sunday—March 4—even though I’m infringing on one of the final days of the steelhead fishing season, which runs from Dec. 1 to March 7 and restricts fishing to Wednesdays, weekends and holidays. I’ve also admitted to him that I know little to nothing about fishing, despite having grown up and lived on a boat for the majority of my life. I’m not exactly the ideal fishing candidate, since I’m embarrassingly uncoordinated, always cold, and fish make me squeamish.
The crack of dawn is apparently the best time to fish for steelhead trout. I assume they want breakfast just as much as I do, but I’ll later be told that spawning fish in the river aren’t actually hungry, they are just territorial. I turn the heater dial up, glancing at my navigation. That’s weird, I think, Hogye said it was a few miles up from downtown, but my phone says it’s another 10 miles away. I decide to just keep driving.
I didn’t want to go into this expedition knowing nothing, so I had talked with local fisherman Barry Burt about the little-known but tight-knit culture of San Lorenzo River fishermen a few days before. Burt has been fishing the San Lorenzo for 55 years—somewhat of a “fly fishing god,” Hogye says. I was hoping Burt might take me fishing with him, too, but I wasn’t surprised when he politely declined. He had bigger ambitions than dragging a novice along, and even bigger fish to catch.
“The San Lorenzo does not give up her fish easily,” Burt said. “I’m on the river almost every legal day and I have a network of what we call the San Lorenzo Mafia. We are a group of dedicated steelheaders.”
Burt told me that the San Lorenzo River used to be the crème de la crème of steelhead fishing spots in Northern California. Anglers from all over the country would descend on the river to fish for migrating steelhead trout and coho salmon, and runs would number in the tens of thousands. He said before the levees were built in the late 1950s, Santa Cruz High School would let out early during the steelhead run—“it was a social gathering.”
Burt also told me he likes to fish the estuary part of the San Lorenzo River—the block that extends from the Beach Boardwalk river mouth to the Santa Cruz Courthouse. He says it’s one of the best places for practicing fly fishing technique without any overhead obstacles and tree crowding. “It is really a unique place,” he said. “Where else can you go in an urban situation and sit on the river and catch chrome-bright, 10-pound steelhead?”
Suddenly my phone beeps “arrived,” but the only thing I’ve arrived at is a random curve just before Boulder Creek. All of my fears have come true. I’m definitely lost, and I’m going to be late.
I call Hogye, trying to hide my panic. Straight to voicemail—he doesn’t have reception. I’ve definitely gone too far north, so I turn around.
I have plenty of time on this drive to go over in my head what I’ve learned so far about fishing in the river. Steelhead trout migrate from the ocean upriver to spawn in the winter and spring months, and run up the estuary to get to higher freshwater breeding grounds, then return to the ocean. Steelhead are a threatened species in the Bay Area; you likely won’t see one unless you know where to look. Even less often will you see a coho salmon in the river—maybe never, as they are endangered and die after spawning. The average San Lorenzo steelhead ranges from six to 10 pounds, though Burt said he’s seen and caught fish well over that. He caught one that was 16 pounds, about the size of a small Dachshund.
Because of their threatened status, all wild steelhead trout and coho salmon in the San Lorenzo are catch and release, meaning that you must return the fish to the river after catching them. Hatchery steelhead, which come from the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project’s Big Creek Restoration Hatchery in Davenport, are the only fish that can be kept. Still, Hogye says most fisherman don’t keep anything they catch, since it’s more about the sport and most want to preserve any and all fish in the river.
The hatchery fish have a clipped fin, which distinguishes them from their wild counterparts. If we’re going to hook a fish today, there’s a good chance it’ll be from the hatchery, since it has released 2 million coho salmon and steelhead to date.
When I finally find Hoyge’s spot, I’m relieved to discover he’s still there. He gets out of his car and says he figured I got lost and was about to go find me. This is the most embarrassed I’ve been in quite a while, but he’s delightfully accommodating and kind, despite the fact that it’s well past dawn and I have probably just lessened our chances of catching anything.
Hogye is a fly fisherman, meaning he doesn’t use bait and instead relies on flies—little feathery lures with hooks—to snag fish. He ties his own flies—they’re expensive to buy, especially if you lose them a lot. He has hundreds of steelhead-specific flies, including a bead head, wooly bugger, winter’s hope, and green butt skunk in his fly-box. He says he doesn’t use all of them, and just collected them over the years. He picks out the egg-sucking leech, his favorite—which looks, by the way, just as interesting as its name makes you think it would—and ties it on.
“I don’t know if leeches actually suck fish eggs, but it sounds good to me,” he says, thumbing the line and beginning his descent into the river. I wait at the bank, thinking about leeches; actually getting me into waders was likely a Sunday chore Hogye wasn’t quite ready for.
There are people fishing upstream and downstream, and we settle into a nook in the middle where the river is flowing into a large pool or “hole” where fish like to hang out. Flies and fishing hardware glitter in the trees overhead like Christmas ornaments, and as Hogye begins casting, I instantly understand how they got stuck there—his line sails high above the low treeline, and I can tell it’s easy to get snagged on a branch.
“The guy upstream is doing the San Lorenzo swing,” Hogye says. “But we call this technique I’m doing the duck n’ chuck.”
It’s a graceful side-to-side swing that covers an impressive distance. Unlike overcasting, he’s working directly in front of him rather than casting from behind his body—lucky for me, since I’m sitting just 10 feet behind him. This also prevents him from snagging a tree and adding to the ornament collection. Still, each time he chucks, I duck.
Hogye keeps casting, and I decide to walk upstream a bit to get out of the line of fire and wake up my legs. Despite all of my preparation, and the ski pants, I’m cold. Moments later, Hogye exclaims “whoa!” I look up and he is looking right at me.
“Did you see that hen roll?” he asks, excitedly. “I hooked it, then it got off. It was beautiful, and pretty decent-sized.”
He begins casting again with renewed purpose. Moments later, our upstream neighbor catches a silvery blue steelhead. The silver fish come straight from the ocean, Hogye says, whereas the red and green ones have been in the river longer and change color to camouflage themselves.
“I know you’re here somewhere,” Hogye says, wading a bit deeper.
Our river neighbors have moved on to other spots, and Hogye decides it might be time for us to move along, too. We don’t see any other fish, though Hogye doesn’t seem too disappointed. I think he’s just excited he hooked one.
We hike up the hill toward the highway, and Hogye explains the state of the fish population in the river. There aren’t many compared to how it used to be, he says, and that’s mainly because of the river’s low water levels and habitat degradation.
This sounds familiar. Burt, too, cited drought in the 1970s and continual rain shortages as a reason for the decline in steelhead and coho populations. When the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project was founded in 1976, he said, the drought had already taken a major toll on the San Lorenzo fish population.
“When the project started, the number of steelhead had dropped to 500 and coho salmon were virtually extinct,” Burt recalls. “Now there are more fish, but still 90 percent of them are caught by 10 percent of the fisherman.”
I want to know how many fish are in the river, but it turns out that’s not an easy answer, even for the experts.
I talked to George Neillands, Senior Environmental Scientist Supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who said it’s difficult to get an exact estimate of how many steelhead and coho salmon are returning to the San Lorenzo River annually, partially because the watershed is large and private landowner access has been difficult to obtain. Neillands said the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s crude estimates of the steelhead population over the last seven years vary wildly from 600 to 2,000 annually. Though they aren’t able to get estimates of the coho salmon population, Neillands said there are anywhere from zero to six coho salmon observed every year within the San Lorenzo River.
Compared to 30 years ago, the populations of coho and steelhead have been on the decline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicator at the Scott Creek Life Cycle Station. This is largely because of climate change, habitat degradation, water withdrawals and urbanization, Neillands told me: “Climate has changed, we aren’t getting consistent rain, it is more variable, with droughts occurring more frequently and the rains are more concentrated from December to March. However, the critical time period for rearing juvenile salmon and steelhead occurs during the dry season when impacts to streamflow and habitat are most felt.”
Since October 2017, the San Lorenzo Valley has gotten 18 inches of rain, according to the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. Compare this to a whopping 72 inches from the same time last year, and you’ll understand why the levels are comparatively low. But flooding isn’t necessarily a good thing for fish, either, since urbanization of the watershed leads to habitat degradation in the San Lorenzo, and causes the holes and cracks that fish like to live in to fill with sediment. When there’s a lot of rain, fish can get washed out into the ocean before they are ready, because there are fewer features in the river for them to hide in.
Lack of rain isn’t the only reason for the low levels in the river. Around 47 percent of the drinking water for the City of Santa Cruz comes directly from the San Lorenzo River, with around 6 to 6.5 million gallons of water used every day. As water levels go down, usage stays the same—and, Hogye points out, will go up as the population increases.
As Hogye and I return to our cars, I ask if we can go to the estuary so that I can get a better sense of what fishing there looks like. Hogye isn’t thrilled about going, because it’s late in the season and there likely won’t be many fish. But he agrees to join me, despite the fact that he may look silly to other experienced steelheaders.
“I’m only doing this for your story,” he says.
I may not know my way around Highway 9, but I do know how to get to the skate park. Hogye and I dip down into the “Buckeye Hole” across from the Kaiser Permanente Arena. It’s desolate, aside from a few people wandering and bikers going in and out. There is certainly no one else with waders and a fishing pole
The lower part of the river near the rivermouth is a bit different than our previous locale—saltier, murkier, and visibly dirtier. Lighters, razors, food wrappers and clothes litter the banks. Hogye says sometimes fish will hang out to get acclimatized to fresh water, but overall they are moving quickly through the river to get upstream. It is low tide, and the water is stagnant—if I were a fish, I’d want to get upstream as quickly as possible, too.
Hogye gets to overcast this time, since I’m not behind him and there are no trees in his way. This is the type of fly fishing technique you see in the movies, and in some ways it’s more impressive than the duck ’n’ chuck.
“Fish come in with the tides, and they sit by the bridge or around here,” Hogye says, gesturing over to the Boardwalk area between casts. “There are holes underneath the bridge at the Boardwalk and there is a deep bank there along the edge of the tracks. You can see the fish when they are coming in; there will be anywhere from 30-100 fish there.”
Hogye points to the piles of leaves and debris, explaining that it should have all been washed out to sea already, but the river is just too low—despite the fact that it rained heavily just a few days before.
“There are too many people trying to share the same glass of water,” Hogye says. “We ruined the river in the last 50 years by taking the water out of it, and now it’s a fight to get it back.”
We head back up the bank, having neither seen nor caught any fish—just like we thought. Hogye explains that we are nearing the lowest time for the river; levels usually dip even more in the summer months, which is when the young fish are just growing up and acclimatizing. The less water there is, the less their chance of survival.
“The fish are like a canary in the coal mine,” Hogye says. “If the fish don’t live, nothing lives.”
Hogye doesn’t believe that California is necessarily in a drought, rather that people are just using too much water during a low-water period. The increased use of concrete and pavement is part of the problem, too, he says, since pavement and concrete trap heat and prevent water absorption, and runoff isn’t conserved for other uses.
“Our rivers are not just water supplies,” Hogye says. “We have endangered the rivers through our own selfish excess. The fish and wildlife thrived for many centuries before we humans practically ruined their habitat in less than a hundred years.”
After we part ways, Hogye spends the rest of the day fishing and not catching anything. Neither would Barry Burt on closing day, despite hooking three.
That actually makes me feel a little better—if the fly fishing god didn’t catch anything, it’s OK that we didn’t. There are fish in the river, no doubt, but they are few and far between even if you do hook them. The fish are smart, and the odds are against you.
“It’s a very humbling experience to fish for steelhead because they don’t come easy,” Burt says. “Like I said, the San Lorenzo does not give up her fish easily, that’s for sure.”